TAMPA — Firefighters found the mother and her two kids together.
The bodies of Meralys Velazquez and her 10-year-old daughter, Sophia, were in the master bathroom of their Town ‘N Country apartment.
Her son Ethan, 5, was in an adjacent closet.
Fire tore through the family’s second-floor apartment building at Captiva Club Apartments early Wednesday, forcing residents to flee. But the family never made it out.
“Never in my life would I have imagined something like this would happen,” Velazquez's sister, Yoresly Velazquez, wrote Thursday in a Facebook post. “My big sister died along with her daughter and son in one of the worst ways possible ... In that moment she tried to save her babies and couldn't and she died trying.”
The mother's name and other new details about the fire were included in an investigative report released Friday by the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner. The report identified her as Meralys Velazquez but on Facebook she used the name Meralys Duque. The names of the children were redacted from the report, but the mother's friend and roommate, Carmela Ortiz, confirmed their identities to the Tampa Bay Times. Relatives mourned them on social media.
Firefighters and deputies were called to 4541 Castaway Drive at about 3:30 a.m. Wednesday. They arrived within minutes at the apartment complex off Memorial Highway and saw flames shooting out of the roof of the building.
Ortiz said when the fire alarm sounded, she ran into Meralys Velazquez in the hallway of their three-bedroom apartment. Ortiz and her 21-year-old daughter, who also lived there, grabbed their chihuahua Miley and fled.
Velazquez went back into her bedroom to get her two kids, said Ortiz and her daughter. But the mother and her two children never emerged from the apartment.
It took firefighters about 45 minutes to knock down the flames to the point where they could safely search the building.
Velazquez's body was found partially inside the tub of the master bathroom, according to the medical examiner’s report. Sophia's body was found lying on the bathroom floor, partially buried under ash and debris. Ethan was found in a nearby closet, his head pressed against a closet wall and the bathroom door frame.
The family's 2-year-old Chihuahua Zoe is missing and presumed dead.
Investigators believe the fire started in an upstairs apartment, then spread to the attic, said Hillsborough County Fire Rescue spokesman Eric Seidel. The state fire marshal is still trying to determine exactly where the fire started and how.
The fire also heavily damage a second apartment building joined by a breezeway, according to a Hillsborough County Code Enforcement report. In all, eight units were damaged or destroyed, officials said, displacing about a dozen people.
The buildings damaged Wednesday, as well as the surrounding structures, all passed the latest fire inspection conducted in September, the county said. No code violations were found.
Inside the building where the family died, a fire investigator’s report said there were smoke detectors outside the bedrooms that were hard-wired to the building’s electrical system and connected to each other. Ortiz told the Times she heard the alarms.
But the building had no sprinkler system. All but one of the 31 apartment buildings inside the complex were built in the mid-1970s and were not required to have them, according to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser's Office.
Some displaced residents opted to move into available units, while the rest have sought other accommodations with the help of the Red Cross. Property owner Eagle Property Capital of Coral Gables said it has offered to void all their leases.
“Our top priority has been to support the residents impacted by the fire,” the company said in a statement.
Velazquez was born in Puerto Rico and attended Bloomingdale High School, according to her Facebook page. Her mother, Magali Rivera of Kissimmee, told investigators that Sophia and Ethan had been staying with her but moved back in with their mother in the Captiva Club apartment about a month ago.
Velazquez smoked, but did so outside on the porch, not inside, the medical examiner report said. It said she also used candles and incense for religious purposes.
Ortiz said Velazquez's husband, Julian Duque, lived and worked out of state and recently visited last weekend for Mother's Day, just days before the fire. He and other family members did not return requests for comment on Friday.
Yoresly Velazquez on Facebook asked for prayers for her sister's husband, mother and stepfather, calling them “the people who knew her inside and out and her beautiful children.”
“They have lost way more,” Yoresly Velazquez wrote, “and I pray that God helps them get through this because I don't know how I will.”
Contact Tony Marrero at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.